There's a simple litmus test for how much effort a restaurant is putting in. It's not the decor or the menu design or the selection of wines, but something much more basic: the side salad. Is it a sad bowl of chopped iceberg with a few lonely chunks of mushy tomato and a store-bought dressing, or is it given the same care and design as the entrees?
In the case of Luciano's, a pleasant hideaway serving American-Italian fare on the Bench, it's the latter. The side salad is a spring mix tossed in oil with olives, tomatoes, salami and shaved Parmesan that packs as much flavor as it does color.
That's not to say Luciano's is without flaws. The bar/entryway is a congested and awkward design mess. Though friendly, my server's mind seemed elsewhere, which is perhaps why she brought me Sprite instead of water, then tried to refill it with water when the glass was half-drained. And there are a few items the menu could do without--fried mozzarella, a ubiquitous appetizer, comes to mind. But from the salad on up, it's clear that the forces behind Luciano's care about making the restaurant the best they can, not just the most profitable.
Most of the menu sticks to traditional pasta dishes for dinner and a selection of sandwiches and pizzas on the lunch menu. But there are a few more daring items, like the Agave Chicken Penne ($11), which is tossed in a tequila lime cream sauce with jalapenos.
The Penne Formaggio ($12) was a healthy portion of penne tossed in a brandied cream sauce with roasted red peppers, mushrooms and chicken, then baked with Parmesan bread crumbs and bacon. It had a strong, smoky flavor and wasn't overly sweet as Marsala-style dishes often are.
Another litmus test for an Italian restaurant is its marinara. Luciano's passes with flying colors. The house-made sauce has a thick, chunky consistency and a savory flavor far removed from the sugary, near-ketchup taste of sauce in a jar. I ordered a ramekin of the sauce and plunged Luciano's salty garlic bread into it.
Another standout offering was Lucci's Chocolate Cake ($7), a four-layer chocolate cake garnished with a chocolate ganache, which my server said perfectly paired bitter and semi-sweet chocolates. The house-made cake was rich without being obtrusively decadent and was served in a giant slice fit for two.
But perhaps the best thing about my trip to Luciano's was the bill. There's little on the menu above $12.
Many Boise diners don't notice the details, which leads local restaurants not to bother with them. But at Luciano's, whether or not the diners notice the small stuff, the restaurant owners do. And it makes all the difference.